Monday, December 09, 2013


I just had another experience which I would assume is common to ESL teachers: you teach an entire semester, and at the end of it, in that busy rush and exchange of e-mails with students, you realize that, as high level as they may be, and focused on whatever the class covered (in this case writing), they still don't know how to write a proper e-mail, or how to address a teacher properly. This infuriates me, because they are often highly competent in their own fields, if not others, and pretty good at English overall. But they can't address a teacher?

My idea is to reorganize all my teaching, all teaching, according to the functional value of things that they need to know. If I had done this, I would have made sure they sent 6-10 e-mails during the term, since being able to send an e-mail to a teacher is far more important than writing a good bibliography. I would have pounded it into them so that every student in that class knew how to write an e-mail. I would have made them address me so often that they would think twice before addressing me the wrong way.

In grammar, a good example is questions. Questions are hard, grammatically; we might put them late in a curriculum and I've seen them overlooked. But, from a functional standpoint, they're essential. I have high-level students who are uncomfortable asking for things. Why? Because they know their grammar may be wrong? Somebody should put questions first in the curriculum. Ram it down their throats. Make sure that, no matter what level they are (above 0), they know how to ask for a bathroom. Especially in an emergency.

In the old days, functionalism meant setting up lessons on ordering in a restaurant, or making a phone call. But I had some students who said, essentially, they never went to a restaurant, period. In a way I'm saying, take the things that are essential; rate them high; organize curricula around them; don't let anyone get far without knowing how to function in a basic way.

In a sense we can see the culture as a big blanket that covers the language. If you have no sense of the culture, the language to some degree won't get you very far. For example, if you don't know how to shake hands, or how to address someone, every interaction gets off to a bad start, and the subtle effects of being outside the culture or being inappropriate tend to overshadow all the good stuff or the human natural tendency to give you a break for being an outsider. In the same way, people who are trying to learn pronunciation are sometimes hampered by the fact that the very way you hold your mouth - its tension, its setting, etc., influences every sound - so that if you are too tense nobody can understand you no matter how well you make the words...neofunctionalism is my way of saying, if people can't walk out my classroom door and address someone, or ask a question, then maybe I've failed them in a fundamental way and should rethink my priorities. It doesn't matter to me as much if they can't tip at the restaurant, that's further down the list, because my priorities start with the stuff that's most essential for their survival and which should be clear to them, life is really easier for you if you learn this stuff.

Krashen used to say that basic social interaction, the oral kind, was the foundation of language skills and thus should be taught until it's mastered, before one attempts reading and then, later, writing. This was what he was after too, the idea that once a student understood and could respond appropriately to the teacher, then serious class-learning of such things as reading could commence, not before...Today's world is much more writing-oriented, with so much business happening by e-mail, etc. Sometimes I think the best thing I could do with these high-level students (powerhouse readers, adequate writers, clueless listeners) is to separate them into an immersion experience where, when it was over, they could at least ask for help in any area, they thought in English often, they were used to addressing people; they spoke up often to get what they need, etc. Concentration on immersion/needs/questions first. If they walk out of your classroom and know how to get stuff, they'll probably be ok.

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